There was a time when those of us who still believe in the potential of public education worried that the greatest evil spawned by our national love affair with standardized testing was that it encouraged schools to "teach to the test."
Who knew "teaching to the test" would become the good ol' days in education?
But it's happening. As the national No Child Left Behind Act has raised the stakes of test results, schools are doing something much worse than altering their curriculum to fit the subjects being tested: They're teaching about the test.
The tests have been in the news as state administrators wring their hands over the inadequate performance of Harcourt Assessment, the private company that got $45 million of our money to produce the tests Illinois third- through eighth-graders are taking this week and next.
But we ought to be wringing our hands over something much more critical to the future of our children: the question of whether this testing is harming these students.
They are losing a week of instruction to testing, which is bad enough. But the test week comes on top of two or more weeks spent teaching kids how to take the test effectively -- those now critical education skills such as how to parcel out your time and how to fill in those blasted little circles with a No. 2 pencil.
Test prep efforts have intensified this year because schools are running scared. Last year, one-third of the state's 879 districts failed to make "adequate yearly progress." And the bar continues to rise, so more schools are likely to fail this year, no matter how many practice tests the kids took.
Meanwhile, President Bush has been touring the country talking about his plan to bolster math and science education -- while my sixth-grade son was spending his math class taking practice tests, not learning new math skills.
In a meeting with newspaper editors last week, Bush said he takes umbrage at suggestions his cornerstone education reform law puts too much emphasis on testing. "My answer to those concerns is that, how do you know if you don't test?" he said.
My answer to him is: Ask the teacher. It doesn't take a standardized test for any teacher worth her paycheck to know, exactly, which of her students is making the grade. And if we want to know how the school is doing overall, then analyze the report cards the kids bring home every few months.
Stan Karp, a New Jersey high school teacher and critic of No Child Left Behind, has written extensively about the law for Rethinking Schools, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that publishes a journal about school reform.
"This is school reform on the cheap," Karp said. It costs schools about $20 a kid to develop a test, he said, "a lot less than it costs to have everybody pass them."
Schools, in their fervor to hurdle the ever-increasing performance bar, are doing everything they can to help kids test well -- weeks of test drills, free breakfast on test days, a reorganized curriculum and lower state benchmarks that allow more kids to pass.
No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization in 2007, which makes the November midterm election an especially critical one for public education. This law, which passed Congress with bipartisan support, needs some serious retooling.
Its goal may have been to ensure no child was left behind, but its reality is that no child is left untested while doing little to raise the level of performance of public schools.